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Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Definitive Animated Films: 20-11

scene from "101 Dalmatians"
courtesy of
Five Disney classics, two Pixar, and three beloved "outside the norm" animated films make up this portion of our list as we move closer to the top of the heap. A few of these may seem higher than they deserve, but now we are moving into the place where arguments start. We all have favorite animated films, but that doesn't mean it deserves to be labeled as "definitive." Here they are - numbers 20 through 11.

#20. Up (2009)

Nominated for five Oscars, including Best Picture and Original Screenplay, the 2009 winner of Best Animated Film was one of the strangest stories Disney/Pixar thought up. Up is the story of Carl Frederickson (voiced by Ed Asner) and his decision to tie hundreds of balloons to his house and float down to South America, where he and his late wife always planned to visit before her death. Besides being only the second film to be nominated for Best Picture, what really sets Up apart from other Disney/Pixar films is the prologue. The film takes us through Carl and Ellie's entire life together - start to finish - and it is GUTWRENCHING. Typing this sentence and remembering the segment of the film brings tears to my eyes. But it is so moving and so perfect that it alone is enough to bring you to watch.

#19. The Little Mermaid (1989)

Disney had minor animated hits through the 60's and 70's (a few are on this list), but in 1989, we saw the rebirth of the Disney animated wing with this loose, but beloved adaptation of the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale. Winning the Oscars for Best Original Score and Best Original Song, The Little Mermaid is a beautiful, touching story of a mermaid who wants to marry her prince. The only way to do it is to make a deal with an evil sea witch named Ursula, who, in return, gives her humanity - legs and access to land. The Little Mermaid has plenty of memorable songs, some of the best animal "sidekicks" of all time, and a wonderful story about growing up and letting go. But, above all, The Little Mermaid recharged Dinsey's animation department and brought them back to the front of the curve.

#18. The Iron Giant (1999)

Long before Brad Bird began helming Disney/Pixar films, he directed what is really a variation on the E.T. story, about an alien coming to Earth and forming a connection with a young boy. The Iron Giant is a wonderfully sweet, endearing film about what it means to build a friendship and how being an outcast isn't always a bad thing. With voice work from Jennifer Aniston, Harry Connick Jr., Vin Diesel, Cloris Leachman, and John Mahoney, this late 90's "alternative to Disney" film has all the heart of any Disney offering and the animation to back it up. A great film for all ages, The Iron Giant gave us what may be Aniston's and Diesel's best film to date and introduced us to the talented man who would go on to direct some of Disney/Pixar's best films (not to mention the most recent Mission Impossible film).

#17. The Lion King (1994)

While The Little Mermaid began Disney's re-birth, The Lion King knocked it out of the park. One of the biggest films to be released in the 90's (or ever, for that matter), the film won the Oscars for Best Score from Hans Zimmer and Best Original Song, where it was nominated against itself three times. With music written by Elton John and Tim Rice, it was also the first animated film to really gather a cast that would make your head spin: Matthew Broderick, Jonathan Taylor Thomas, James Earl Jones, Jeremy Irons, Nathan Lane, Robert Guillame, Whoopi Goldberg, Cheech Marin, Rowan Atkinson, etc. The Lion King carried themes that basically made it "Bambi meets Hamlet," and was really the first animated film to reach true blockbuster status, eventually becoming the highest grossing traditionally animated film in history and inspiring a Broadway musical.

#16. Peter Pan (1953)

Author J.M. Barrie's story of a boy who never gets older and his ongoing fight against Captain Hook and other pirates was brought to life most memorably with Disney's 1953 animated version. Peter Pan tells the all-too-familiar story of Wendy, John, and Michael, as they are taken to Neverland by the mystifying title character. Tinkerbell, Hook, Smee, the Lost Boys, Tiger Lily, and all the other Barrie characters appear, along with the crocodile that took Hook's hand. There aren't many stories better at encouraging us to all stay young at heart and, to this day, Disney's 1953 version is the best adaptation of the classic story that has hit the screen. Plenty of shoot-offs involving Tinkerbell and other characters from this film still exist with the Disney studio system, so its influence is still felt heavily.

#15. Finding Nemo (2003)

Stories of parents letting their children become more independent are a common theme in animated films (see The Little Mermaid above), but few have done it better than 2003's Finding Nemo.  Set in the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, Nemo focuses on Marlin (voiced by Albert Brooks) and his quest to find his son, with the help of Dory (voiced by Ellen DeGeneres), a fish with short term memory loss. A beautifully animated film rife with dozens of interesting characters, Nemo's main themes focus on letting your children live, but not without keeping that unending desire to keep them safe and protect them. Also featuring the voices of Willem Dafoe, Geoffrey Rush, Allison Janney, Brad Garrett, and more, Finding Nemo may not be Disney/Pixar's best film, but it certainly is one of its funniest and most entertaining.

#14. Dumbo (1941)

At 64 minutes - one of Disney's shortest animated films of all time - the original purpose of the movie was simply to make back the money the studio lost with a film we'll discuss later on this list. Instead, Dumbo won an Oscar (Best Original Score) and captured the hearts of children and adults alike with its heartwarming tale of an elephant who is ridiculed for having enlarged ears. With the help of a mouse named Timothy, Dumbo works to achieve the dreams he was born to achieve. Again, focusing on themes of overcoming obstacles and being an outcast, Dumbo featured some of the most memorable early songs in Disney's pantheon, including the beautifully touching "Baby Mine," which garnered an Oscar nomination for Best Original Song.

#13. The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)

Another Henry Selick/Tim Burton collaboration, this wholly original story of Jack Skellington (voiced by Chris Sarandon) and his discovery of Christmastown is an ingenious take on holidays in general, all done the only way Tim Burton could ever slap his name as "producer" on an animated movie. The Nightmare Before Christmas is a stop motion animated fantasy musical that originated from a poem written by Burton in 1982 while working at Disney as an animator. Burton left Disney in 1984, only to revisit the idea in 1990 and strike up a development deal with his former employer, who released the film under their Touchstone Pictures sub-set (they felt the film was too weird for children to attach the Disney name to it). An animated film that takes child-centered holidays but twists them into a surrealist knot, Nightmare stands up as a holiday classic, even if it is a creepy one.

#12. The Jungle Book (1967)

One of the most underrated Disney films, the 1967 adaptation of Rudyard Kipling's Mowgli stories deserve a lot of the credit for inspiring Disney biggest traditionally animated film, The Lion King. Featuring voices of George Sanders and Louis Prima, this is the story of a group of animals trying to convince a young boy who lives among them that he belongs among his own kind, so he can escape an evil tiger named Shere Kahn. The Jungle Book features one of Disney's most memorable songs ("The Bear Necessities") and develops a strong story that gave The Lion King a lot of its plotline (i.e. The protagonist runs away from his home, only to meet some outcast animals who convince him that responsibility is no fun). Regardless, The Jungle Book was one of Disney's biggest successes of the mid 20th century, the highest grossing Disney animated film of all time until the release of The Little Mermaid in 1989.

#11. Akira (1988)

While Hayao Miyazaki was building an empire on family friendly, fantastical animated films, writer/director Katsuhiro Otomo took the popular Japanimation techniques and created a visual masterpiece that's exciting and not exactly kid material. When a secret military project goes awry, it unleashes a psychopathic biker into the world of Neo-Tokyo who can only be stopped by two kids and a group of psychics. Based on Otomo's own manga (comic book), this Japanese animation landmark film has become somewhat of a cult classic, after being pared down from the 2182 page epic graphic novel. Akira pulled a ranking of #51 on Empire Magazine's list of the 100 Best Films of World Cinema, in case you're skeptical. The influx of Japanese animation in American TV - that's mostly thanks to Akira. So, every time your child plays "Pokemon" or watches "Avatar: The Last Airbender," you can trace that back to this underground sensation.

Well, we've reached the apex. Next, we'll look at the top ten.

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